Cock o’ the Midden

It is (as our Editor is constantly reminding me) the purpose of this column to comment primarily on developments in secular culture – on shoes, ships, sealing wax cabbages, kings, etc. But it is not possible, I think, to avoid any longer the subject of Richard Chartres – than whom anything less secular is scarcely imaginable.

The Bishop of London has the advantage (or disadvantage, as it may well prove) of looking as though he had somehow avoided the normal processes of human generation and sprung directly from the brush of Rubens. Ample, authoritative and be-whiskered, he would look well on the rear panel of some extravagant triptych, his cope swirling around him in the calculated frenzy of the baroque. Though logic compels one to suppose that there must be those who remember him in earlier days (and genial Jim Thompson cannot entirely have forgotten him as a theological student!) he seems, like a figure in a painterly allegory, to be caught up in that timeless now which we can observe but not inhabit.

There are, nevertheless, uncomfortable points of contact with this present world.

In the unseemly scramble to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury, it appears, bishops (like aspirants to the leadership of political parties) must develop ‘friends’. Whether these are people to whom the bishops in question would, in other circumstances, ever own up is, of course, a moot point. But bishops without ‘friends’, we can be sure, are ignored by the religious affairs correspondents, and go naked before the Crown Appointments Commission.

Now either Bishop Chartres is merely a piece of post-modern pastiche (no more baroque than a Quinlan Terry terrace is Palladian), or he has some very questionable ‘friends’. They have been telling the press that Richard is about to change his stance on women’s ordination. (They cannot call it a ‘mind’, because that, they claim, is what he has never made up.)

Anyone can see that this is a high-risk strategy. Richard Chartres’ ‘mind’ is after all his strong suit – less acute than Rowan’s, but more accessible.

How can a man who has hitherto been unable to make up his ‘mind’ about an issue which has been tearing the Anglican Communion apart for a quarter of a century, be said to be a suitable candidate for its presidency? That is a proposition at one and the same time discreditable to the candidate and even more discreditable to the institution. If the issue is of such crucial importance, anyone with a ‘mind’ should surely have made it up by now.

The ‘friends’, moreover, are themselves in the most ambiguous of positions. Richard is, at one and the same time, their protégé and their patron. Whichever relationship is uppermost in their minds, they must surely know that have they backed him into the most unenviable of corners.

It would be one thing were Richard to prove an Anglican Henri de Navarre, boldly declaring that ‘Canterbury is worth a priestess’. He would then, at least, appear as honest as an ecclesiastical careerist can. He would have lost his gloire; but right-leaning pragmatists would rally to his cause. The ‘friends’, however, have accorded him the luxury of no such honesty. He cannot currently declare his hand, they say, for fear of seeming cynically ambitious. So he is condemned, in the event of preferment, either to ordaining women or not ordaining them; thus disappointing either the ladies or their opponents, and appearing to both to have exercised precisely the prior cynicism which the present manoeuvre is intended to spin. The volte face, moreover, would require intellectual as well as political gymnastics. As ABC, more likely than not, Chartres would have to ordain the first woman to the episcopate – thus jumping, in this theological Aintree, two fences at one bound; his feet presumably never touching the ground.

With ‘friends’ like these, one is inclined to ask, who needs enemies? And who are these ‘friends’, in any case?

The ‘friends’ of an Anglican bishop like the ‘friends’ of an aspiring politician are, one would suppose, to be found among those who might benefit from the patronage of the one whose position they hope to assure. That there is, in the case of an Archbishop of Canterbury, a rich vein of patronage to be mined, no one who has done the arithmetic of Robert’s friends and George’s curates can doubt.

But in the case of Richard Chartres there is no aggrieved constituency which could advance itself by making him its client. Chartres has been the very model of an Act of Synod bishop. He has preferred Forward in Faith members and lesbian women priests with exemplary indifference. He has even, so far as I can see, selflessly preferred to the episcopate people he cannot possibly like.

Throughout all this, from his privileged position on the reverse side of a triptych by Rubens, the Bishop of London is enigmatically silent. And all others who might throw light on the issue are rendered similarly mute by the very relationships which lend them knowledge. Richard Chartres is said by his ‘friends’ to have maintained that any bishop who cannot accept women priests should leave the Church of England. So what say John Broadhurst and Peter Wheatley? Did he say it to them?

Since the bonds of collegiality always prove more powerful than the demands of truth, we will probably never know – apart, that is, from obvious visits, by either or both, to the estate agent.

The only way in which Chartres can now escape the impending ignominy to which the ‘friends’ have condemned him is to maintain his silence and to pray that his name does not go forward. He will find the first part easy. ‘Those who live by the press die by the press’ he once said, with canny prescience. Let us hope that the change of opinion recently canvassed really was the view merely of ‘friends’, and that he has taken his own aphorism to heart. The second, despite (or perhaps because of) the ‘friends’, remains the most likely outcome.

As to the future, he can be quietly confident. He has no need of advancing himself, as the ‘friends’ suppose, by a vain alteration of opinion. All the candidates for the top job save one cannot hold a candle to him. From Chartres’ point of view the best possible outcome would be the appointment of some compromise candidate, like Herbert or even Langrish, with a degree of personal charm but no discernable ability. He could then tower over the whole show from his present employment, as the one who having uniquely uncovered what a midden it is, had disdained to be the cock on it.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.